Dr Emma Devapriam was born in Madras, India, on 5 August 1933. She joined the National Gallery of Victoria in 1974 as Assistant Curator of Asian Art. She was Curator and then Senior Curator of European and American Art Before 1800 from 1976 to 1993.
Before she joined the NGV, she had a distinguished academic career. She received her BA and MA from Madras University. In 1967–68 she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, America. She studied art history under the renowned scholar Dr Sherman Lee, who was also director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. She won the John D. Rockefeller Fund Award to undertake research for her doctoral thesis, ‘The Influence of European Art on Indian Paintings’, in England and Europe, 1971–72. She was the first Indian woman awarded a doctoral degree in art history and the first to specialise and work in the field of European art.
When Dr Devapriam was Assistant Curator of Asian Art, she introduced Robert Skelton, Keeper of Indian Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to Dr Ursula Hoff, who was then Advisor to the Felton Bequest. A significant collection of Indian miniatures from Rajasthan was recommended by Robert Skelton to Dr Hoff and was then acquired by the Felton Bequest for the Gallery.
In 1979, as Curator of European and American Art Before 1800, Dr Devapriam was responsible for organising an exhibition of European paintings from the collection to be exhibited in Russia. She was also consultant curator of the exhibition of European paintings from the State Hermitage and A. S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Russia which came to Australia in 1979.
During her tenure a number of very significant paintings entered the NGV collection. Among them are Sebastiaen Vrancx’s The Crossing of the Red Sea, c.1597–1600; Francois Boucher’s The mysterious basket, 1748, and The enjoyable lesson, 1748; Canaletto’s
Bacino di S. Marco: From the Piazzetta, c.1750; and Henry Fuseli’s Milton, when a youth, 1796–99.
Emma was a loving and caring colleague and friend to many of us who had the privilege of knowing her. She left Australia and went back to India in 1993. There she led a quiet life and earlier this year she passed away peacefully. She is dearly missed by all who cherish her memory.
Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).